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Actaea species

This Saturn plant is a classic woodlands perennial.  The small white flowers that come out in spring are pollinated by beetles and flies, but they are not what make this a neat plant to grow--the berries are.  They start out green, turn red, and then become either a wonderfully sinister matte black or striking white with brown eyes (Doll's Eyes) in early fall, depending on the variety.  The black berries have been made into a dye with the use of an alum mordant.  This plant likes light or dappled shade and rich, moist, humusy soil.  It gets up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide when it's happy, but it can also be grown in a pot.

Toxicity and Herbalism

This plant is poisonous--that's why it's called Baneberry--although it tastes so terrible that so far no one has died of it.  Be careful of the sap, because it can cause cause blisters, like almost all plants in the buttercup family.  The root, which is large and creeping, was brewed into a tea by Native Americans for treating colds, coughs, and pain, the Cherokee used it to revive people near death, and it has been applied against snakebite in Canada. Generally, it is no longer used in the West for medicinal purposes, although a relative, rubra, is used in Ayurvedic medicine. This plant is also known as herb Christopher, bugbane, toadroot, red cohosh, necklaceweed, and snakeberry.


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2004, 2014 Harold A. Roth. No reproduction of any part without permission.


How to Grow Baneberry

There are three ways to germinate this plant.  Sow on Winter Solstice (see the Solstice Sowing page). Or sow as usual in Jiffy-7 or damp sterile soil at 64-71F for 2-4 wks, then shift it to 24-39F for 4-6 wks (check your freezer temp to see if it's within this range), then move it to 41-53F for germination.  You need to time this so your outside weather is within the last range when it's time to put them out there for germination.  The fridge has the right temp but no light, so it won't work for that.  The other way to germinate is to soak the seeds for two weeks in cold water that is replaced with fresh cold water daily.  I use an old vitamin jar I keep in the fridge and refill with ice water.  Then take them out and plant them as usual in jiffy-7 and put out at 41-54F.  Once you get a plant going, you can divide it every fall or early spring to get more plants.  This plant is hardy to zone 5 (temperate).  It likes to be one its own; it sends out chemicals to keep other plants from growing near it.  General growing info.